Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THE SIX SWANS
NCE upon a time, a certain King was hunting in a great
forest, and he chased a wild beast so eagerly that none
of his attendants could follow him. When evening drew
near, he stopped and looked around him, and saw that he
had lost his way. He sought a way out, but could find
none. Then he perceived an Old Woman with a head which
nodded all the time, who came toward him, but she was a
"Good woman," said he to her, "can you not show me the
way through the forest?"
"Oh, yes, Lord King," she answered, "that I certainly
can, but on one condition, and if you do not fulfill
that, you will never get out of the forest, and will
die of hunger in it."
"What kind of a condition is it?" asked the King.
"I have a daughter," said the old woman, "who is as
beautiful as any one in the world, and well deserves to
be your wife. If you will make her your Queen, I will
show you the way out of the forest."
In the anguish of his heart the King consented, and the
 woman led him to her little hut, where her daughter was
sitting by the fire. She received the King as if she
had been expecting him. He saw that she was very
beautiful, but still she did not please him, and he
could not look at her without secret horror.
After he had taken the maiden up on his horse, the old
woman showed him the way, and the King reached his
royal palace again, where the wedding was celebrated.
The King had already been married once, and had by his
first wife, seven children, six boys and a girl, whom
he loved better than anything else in the world. As he
now feared that the new Queen might not treat them
well, and even do them some injury, he took them to a
lonely castle which stood in the midst of a forest. It
lay concealed, and the way was so difficult to find,
that he himself would not have found it at all, if a
Wise Woman had not given him a ball of yarn with
wonderful properties. When he threw it down before
him, it unrolled itself and showed him his path.
The King, however, went so frequently to visit his dear
children, that the Queen noticed his absence. She was
curious and wanted to know what he did when he was
alone in the forest. She gave a great deal of money to
his servants, and they betrayed the secret to her, and
told her likewise of the ball which alone could point
out the way.
And now she knew no rest until she had learnt where the
King kept the ball of yarn. Then she made little
shirts of white silk, and as she had learnt the art of
witchcraft from her mother, she sewed a charm inside
them. And one day, when the King had ridden forth to
hunt, she took the little shirts and went into the
forest, and the ball showed her the way.
 The children, who saw from a distance that some one was
approaching, thought that their dear father was coming
to them, and full of joy, ran to meet him. Then she
threw one of the little shirts over each of them. And
no sooner had the shirts touched their bodies than they
were changed into Swans, and flew away over the forest.
The Queen went home quite delighted, and thought she
had got rid of all the children, but the girl had not
run out with her brothers, and the Queen knew nothing
Next day, the King went to visit his children, but
found no one but the little girl.
"Where are your brothers?" asked the King.
"Alas, dear Father," she answered, "they have gone away
and left me alone!" and she told him that she had seen
from her little window, how her brothers had flown away
over the forest in the shape of Swans. And she showed
him the feathers, which they had let fall in the
courtyard, and which she had picked up.
The King mourned, but he did not think that the Queen
had done this wicked deed. And as he feared that the
girl also would be stolen from him, he wanted to take
her away. But she was afraid of the Queen, and
entreated the King to let her stay just one night more
in the forest-castle.
The poor girl thought, "I can no longer remain here. I
will go and seek my brothers." And when night came,
she ran away, and went straight into the forest.
She walked the whole night long, and next day also
without stopping, until she could go no farther for
weariness. Then she saw a forest-hut, and went into
it, and found a room with
 six little beds. She did not venture to get into any
of them, but crept under one, and lay down on the hard
ground, to pass the night there. Just before sunset
she heard a rustling, and saw six Swans come flying in
at the window. They alighted on the ground and blew at
each other, and blew all the feathers off, and their
swan's skins stripped off like a shirt.
Then the maiden looked at them and recognized her
brothers. She rejoiced and crept forth from beneath
the bed. The brothers were not less delighted to see
their little sister, but their joy was short.
"Here can you not abide," they said to her. "This is a
shelter for robbers. If they come home and find you,
they will kill you."
"But can you not protect me?" asked the little sister.
"No," they replied, "only for one quarter of an hour
each evening, can we lay aside our swan's skins and
have our human form. After that, we are once more
turned into Swans."
The little sister wept, and said, "Can you not be set
"Alas, no," they answered, "the conditions are too
hard! For six years you may neither speak nor laugh,
and in that time you must sew together six little
shirts of Star-Flowers for us. And if one single word
falls from your lips, all your work will be lost."
And when the brothers had said this, the quarter of an
hour was over, and they flew out of the window again as
The maiden, however, resolved to deliver her brothers,
even if it should cost her her life. She left the hut,
went into the midst of the forest, seated herself on a
tree, and there passed the night. Next morning, she
went out and gathered
Star-  Flowers and began to sew. She could not speak to any
one, and she had no wish to laugh. She sat there and
looked at nothing but her work.
When she had spent a long time there, it came to pass
that the King of the country was hunting in the forest,
and his huntsmen came to the tree on which the maiden
They called to her, and said, "Who are you?" But she
made no answer. "Come down to us," said they. "We
will not do you any harm."
She only shook her head. As they pressed her further
with questions, she threw her golden necklace down to
them, and thought to content them with that. They,
however, did not cease, and then she threw her girdle
down to them, and as this also was to no use, her
garters, and little by little everything which she had
on that she could do without, until she had nothing
left but her shift. The huntsmen, however, did not let
themselves be turned aside by that, but climbed the
tree and fetched the maiden down and led her before the
The King asked, "Who are you? What are you doing on
But she did not answer. He put the question in every
language that he knew, but she remained as mute as a
fish. As she was so beautiful, the King's heart was
touched, and he was smitten with a great love for her.
He put his mantle on her, took her before him on his
horse, and carried her to his castle.
Then he caused her to be dressed in rich garments, and
she shone in her beauty like bright daylight, but no
word could be drawn from her. He placed her by his
side at table, and her modest bearing and courtesy
pleased him so much, that he said,
 "She is the one whom I wish to marry, and no other
woman in the world." And a few days after, he united
himself to her.
The King, however, had a wicked mother, who was
dissatisfied with his marriage and spoke ill of the
young Queen. "Who knows," said she, "from whence comes
the creature, who can't speak? She is not worthy of a
After a year had passed, when the Queen brought her
first child into the world, the old woman took it away
from her and smeared her mouth with blood as she slept.
Then she went to the King and accused the Queen of
being a man-eater. The King would not believe it, and
would not suffer any one to do her injury. She,
however, sat continually sewing at the shirts, and
cared for nothing else.
The next time, when she again bore a beautiful boy, the
false old woman used the same treachery, but the King
could not bring himself to believe her words. He said,
"She is too pious and good to do anything of that kind.
If she were not dumb, and could defend herself, her
innocence would come to light."
But when the old woman stole away the newly-born child
for the third time, and accused the Queen, who did not
utter one word of defense, the King could do no
otherwise than deliver her over to justice; and she was
sentenced to be burned.
When the day came for the sentence to be executed, it
was the last day of the six years during which she was
not to speak or laugh, and she had delivered her dear
brothers from the power of the enchantment. The six
shirts were ready, only the left sleeve of the sixth
When, therefore, she was led to the stake, she laid the
shirts on her arm. And when she stood on high and the
 going to be lighted, she looked around and six Swans
came flying through the air toward her. Then she saw
that her deliverance was near, and her heart leapt with
The Swans swept toward her and sank down so that she
could throw the shirts over them. And as they were
touched by them, their swan's skins fell off, and her
brothers stood in their own form before her, vigorous
and handsome. The youngest lacked only his left arm,
and had in its place a swan's wing on his shoulder.
They embraced and kissed each other, and the Queen went
to the King, who was greatly moved, and she began to
speak, and said, "Dearest Husband, now I may speak and
declare to you that I am innocent, and falsely
accused." And she told him of the treachery of the old
woman who had taken away her three children, and hidden
To the great joy of the King, they were brought back.
And as a punishment, the wicked woman was bound to the
stake and burned to ashes.
But the King and the Queen, with their six brothers,
lived many years in happiness and peace.